Steamboat Willie (1928)

  • Release date: 8 November, 1928
  • Run time: 8 mins
  • Director: Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks
  • Cast: Walt Disney
  • Inspired by: Steamboat Bill, Jr (Buster Keaton)

The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.

Before we get to any of the feature length films, it makes sense to go right back to where it all began and the introduction to the world’s most famous rodent. It is all but impossible for most of us to imagine a world without Mickey Mouse, so going back to his humble beginnings is a strange experience; to watch his antics with the eyes of a viewer who is witnessing the birth of a cultural icon. Did those early cinema patrons realise what they had seen? Was it possible to spot, even then, the genius that lay behind the paint pot?

The story is slight – Mickey, who works on a steamboat, attempts to impress passenger Minnie with his musical prowess, while overcoming the hurdles laid down by the boat’s captain, Pete, and a hungry goat. This was Mickey’s debut (two other shorts – Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho – had been produced earlier but were not released until after Steamboat Willie). Disney had pushed this effort forward after watching The Jazz Singer and deciding he wanted to use sychronised sound; as a result, Steamboat Willie was the first animation to feature a fully post-produced soundtrack.

Given the inspiration, Disney was setting his sights high. The Jazz Singer had pushed the boundaries of what cinema could achieve and, even if the story itself is slight, the use of sound was truly groundbreaking. Perhaps even more audaciously, Disney turned to one of the masters of comedy for his plot. Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr is a motion picture masterpiece; a breath-taking slice of cinema by the greatest comedy performer who has ever worked in the medium (including Chaplin). It was a particularly bold move by Disney to allude to Keaton’s recently released film, given that it was regarded at the time as a box office failure (fortunately, it has long since been recognised as one of Keaton’s very best). It shows the faith that the animator had in his project.

It is strange looking back on Mickey in his early form: he doesn’t speak (he would have to wait another year for The Karnival Kid before he found his voice); his eyes are just black dots (it would be over a decade before he acquired whites to his pupils, in 1940’s Fantasia); and his behaviour is incredibly childish. And yet, there is something in his character that is endearing – it will take some honing, but the young rodent is already showing the resourcefulness, wit and sympathy that would turn him into a giant. Besides, it’s rather fun to see a more rough and ready Mickey, rather than the saccharine image which he ended up possessing. Even the supposed animal cruelty (a scene showing him swing a cat was excised from the short for a time, for fear that it would cause offence – it has since been re-inserted) is so cartoonish as to raise a smile at its inventiveness.

The characters are all larger than life and the speeds along without any fat to slow down the action. It is not hard to see why the world took to Mickey and how he quickly became the face of Disney’s growing animation empire. After more than 90 years, Steamboat Willie still stands up as one of the great animation shorts of all time.

Feel-good factor (out of 10): Probably a 7. It is rather on the short side to allow you to wallow in it, but it certainly raises a smile for its minimal run time. Not really something to put on if you need a longer pick-me-up, but if you need a quick and simple 10 minute boost, this will do the trick.

You can watch the full short on Disney’s own YouTube animation channel:

Next movie: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Published by Ben Evans

Film fan; music lover; avid reader; culture snob.

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